Researchers have long known the answers, at least on a purely scientific front: we need to phase out our reliance on fossil fuels to eliminate the excessive production of heat-trapping chemicals building up in our atmosphere.
But how do we do that? What would it look like? This part of the puzzle is not so well explored: the social dynamics and shifts that would need to take place for society to shake off its dangerous inertia and actually realise our goals of a safe, stable climate.
We now have some new leads on this. In a new study, an international team of scientists and climate change experts investigated what these 'tipping mechanisms' could be, identifying six elements they say could spark societal change towards climate stabilisation and planetary sustainability.
"From the energy sector to financial markets to our cities – we were able to pin down social tipping elements and identify concrete interventions that might activate contagious processes of rapidly spreading technologies, behavioural patterns, and social norms," says sociologist and economist Ilona M. Otto from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) in Germany.
In a multi-faceted study that drew upon workshopping, surveying, and an assessment of scientific and academic literature, the researchers examined the elements most likely to help society limit global warming by transitioning to a carbon-neutral state by 2050.
While the researchers acknowledge the tipping mechanisms they've identified are not any kind of complete list, they nonetheless could serve as a roadmap to achieve "rapid socio-economic transformation pathways and explore narratives for a decarbonised future in 2050," Otto says.
According to the research, the social tipping interventions that could help us do this would be:
- removing fossil-fuel subsidies and incentivising decentralised energy generation;
- building carbon-neutral cities;
- divesting from assets linked to fossil fuels;
- revealing the moral implications of fossil fuels;
- strengthening climate education and engagement; and
- disclosing information on greenhouse gas emissions.
Of course, many of these mechanisms are already in process and evident in society to some degree, but whether any have yet reached a tipping point leading to a rapid societal transformation is debatable.
Nonetheless, the researchers see positive signs, highlighting the phenomenon of school students conducting climate strikes.
"The movement is causing 'irritations' in personal world views and thus might be changing peoples' norms and values and the ways of thinking and acting, possibly leading to changes in policies and regulations, infrastructure development, as well as individual consumption and lifestyle decisions," the authors write in their paper.
The value of such realisations and changes, however, needs to be tied to broader shifts in society, business, and governance, to reduce friction hindering adoption of carbon-neutral lifestyles.
"Awareness of global warming is high but social norms to fundamentally shift behaviour are not," says PIK's director, Johan Rockström.
"This is a mismatch that science alone cannot fix. For individuals to live a carbon-free lifestyle must be made easy… but on the longer term a new social equilibrium is needed in which climate protection is recognised as a social norm, otherwise shocks on the financial markets or economic crises could destroy progress in decarbonisation."
For us to succeed, the researchers say we need "contagious dynamics" that spread exponentially and simultaneously within society, politics, and the economy.
It's a lot to hope for, the world the way it is, but it's something that needs to happen, the researchers say.
After all, there are other kinds of tipping points already being triggered around the planet, and they are not the kind we want to see.